Reflections on James Tenney

by Chiyoko Szlavnics (2007)

first published in Musicworks 97


When I heard in March of 2006 that Jim Tenney's lung cancer had returned, I was still processing the very recent death of my mother from breast cancer. Two extremely significant people in my life died within the space of eight months. Both had been crucial to my artistic development: my mother, a visual artist, had instilled in me a very strong visual aesthetic – an organic, powerful sense of form, colour, and layering. Jim introduced me to the concepts of sound as material (the mathematical-acoustical-physiological principles underpinning its consistency), and form as something that could be created by controlling, or shaping, its parameters over time. What was most striking to me back in 1994, as a young composer just starting out, was Tenney's incredible rationality – his ability to clearly explain principles, and everything else he was interested in; his candidness and openness; his contagious enthusiasm; and his generosity with time. The underlying principles for shaping form, which Tenney showed me during my first lesson, have become – in a surprising way – intrinsic to my method. And now, more than twelve years on, what I am most struck by is Tenney's legacy: his large and varied body of compositions, writings, and notes, which contain a myriad of fertile theoretical proposals, representing the activity of an enormously creative mind – a mind that delighted in linking the past to the future, and in exploring ideas which may well continue to evolve through the countless number of students he inspired and influenced throughout more than three decades. Continue reading >




Harmonic Space Music

by Marc Sabat (February 2020)

festival program co-curator


In his ground-breaking 1983 article “John Cage and the Theory of Harmony”, the American composer and theorist James Tenney proposes a mathematical model describing a possible ordering of “harmonic” auditory perception. He sets out a quantitative measure of how pitched sounds with various fundamentals, which may be measured along a one-dimensional continuum of vibrational frequencies from low to high, also establish other salient, multi-dimensional relations of proximity. In musical terms, these are generally described as qualities of concordance/discordance, manifesting as degrees of tuneability, applicable to successively or simultaneously sounding pitches. The building blocks of these relations are frequency ratios and the specific primes which comprise them. Continue reading >




Tenney’s Aggregates

by Catherine Lamb (2017)

While I am reading James Tenney’s writings, I am often transformed by his particular terminology that somehow infuses an entire atmosphere around the thing he is describing. He fluidly links points of phenomenological perception and conceptual clarity with the theoretical, the intuitive, and the creative form in this atmosphere of a consistently used word. A principle one in this text and others is his use of aggregate. As I write this I wonder how it translates into Russian. It is related to his use of clang which is overflowing in Meta-/Meta-Meta-Hodos, but here suggests a more moveable and flexible semantic. I am romanticizing the word aggregate because it has become integrated into my own cognition on most things related to music, only after reading The History of Consonance and Dissonance. Continue reading >




KOAN James Tenney sagte schon

by Wolfgang von Schweinitz (February 2007)

first published in MusikTexte 112


Inspiriert von seinen großen Mentoren Edgard Varèse, Harry Partch, Carl Ruggles und John Cage, hat er zum Einstieg gleich seine Magisterarbeit dazu benutzt, den kühnen Versuch zu unternehmen, in einem einzigen Streich praktisch sämtliche traditionellen musiktheoretischen und kompositorischen Vorstellungen mit einer systematisch durchdachten Sammlung neuer, möglichst universalistischer, auf der avanciertesten Musik des 20. Jahrhunderts und auf der Gestaltpsychologie und Wahrnehmungstheorie aufbauender musikalischer Begriffe zu ersetzen. Dieses schöne, profunde Buch “META+HODOS and META Meta+Hodos” (1961) war in den vergangenen vier Jahrzehnten bei amerikanischen Komponistenkollegen so etwas wie ein Geheimtip, und es ist jetzt für 20 Euro leicht zu haben bei 'amazon'. Weiter lesen >